Over-Thought: Offseason Coming into Shape

As the Stanley Cup Finals creep closer, as does the draft and offseason. That means teams who missed the playoffs or those eliminated early are gearing up for roster changes. The most recent edition of 31 Thoughts had plenty of tidbits on those potential moves and in the newest OT, I take a look at a few that stood out.

If you haven’t read last week’s 31 Thoughts you can catch it here.

1. Pittsburgh will never rebuild as long as Sidney Crosby is around. But defeat does not sit well in that corner of Pennsylvania and there is need for renovations. You can understand the eye-rolling that comes with Evgeni Malkin trade rumours, but several other clubs believe there is something to this — that, at the very least, the Penguins are determining the feasibility of the idea.

GM Jim Rutherford declined comment, but hinted at it in a couple of local interviews last week. Malkin has a no-move clause, yet the buzz is that he’s taking some time to decompress and think about a.) if he’d agree and b.) where he’d agree to go to. That would be a short list, maybe the Rangers and Florida? The bigger hurdle might be Mario Lemieux, with The Athletic’s Josh Yohe reporting sources have told him Lemieux is against the idea. For the Penguins to consider this, the return must be good enough to keep them in contention now.

That the Penguins are possibly (maybe?) entertaining moving Malkin is mindboggling to me. I can see how the logic may lead Jim Rutherford to moving him. By dealing Malkin for another superstar or a package of effective players would spread the wealth through Pittsburgh’s lineup. But we’ve seen four quarters not equaling a dollar far too many times in today’s NHL. Look no farther than the current fallout from trading Ryan O’Reilly.

Malkin himself is a step above O’Reilly, if not multiple steps. Somehow he’s 32 years old, which means I’m officially “This Guy is How Old?” years old. So that’s a little depressing. Even at 32 he still produced at an impressive clip – just over a point per game and that was considered a down season. Friedman mentions Florida or the Rangers as destinations. Unless they’re getting Ekblad and Huberdeau for him, what’s the point? Personally, I think this is all smoke but given Rutherford’s penchant for blockbusters I won’t rule anything out.

7. Buffalo interviewed Dave Tippett for its coaching vacancy, and word is that went very well. Jacques Martin was in there, too, and Swedish National Coach Rikard Gronborg is expected to be in the mix. After a great regular season their AHL affiliate, Rochester, was swept by Toronto in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs. Word is they were very impressed with the job Sheldon Keefe did, and it wouldn’t be a stunner if they asked to talk to him. There is a belief they don’t want a first-time hire, but Keefe could test that.

We touched on Tippett in last week’s podcast and the best summary of that I can provide is that he’d be fine. When I first heard his name as a potential candidate, I was a little indifferent. Things in Arizona didn’t end too well for him and those were some bad teams. But digging in a little more shows a guy who has a decent grasp of how analytics can help his team get better and someone who isn’t completely stuck in an old way of thinking.

There are things to like about him, he had a few guys produce at impressive levels while he was in Dallas, so there’s some track record of offensive success as well. The one other thing that I like about him is that he had a fair bit of longevity as far as retreads go. That’s not exactly the most thrilling endorsement but he had two pretty lengthy runs with Dallas and Arizona. He didn’t get run out after a few seasons like Mike Yeo or Todd Richards, for example.

Even with connections like this one or via Twitter, there hasn’t been a whole lot of information to go on with the Sabres coaching search. They seemed pretty keen on Todd McClellan but even that saga was rife with conflicting reports. After the dust settled on McClellan it seems as if there are three horses left in the race. Tippett, Rikard Gronborg and Sheldon Keefe.

(Sidenote: It’s my belief the Sabres really liked McClellan but fell second to LA on his preferred destinations. And I think they were ready to make him a healthy offer, but he told them LA was where he wanted to go.)

Of those three I think Gronborg represents the most exciting opportunity as there’s an element of the unknown with him. He represents the opportunity for someone who thinks outside the box and his recent media availability indicates he has a good grasp of how analytics can help inform his decisions. So that’s going to win him plenty of fans as well.

Keefe is kind of Gronborg Light, in a way. He and Kyle Dubas have been said to be very much in lockstep when it comes to utilizing analytics to inform decisions. He’s had plenty of success at the American League level, opening the door for the next step as an NHL head coach. The only thing he’s lacking is the experience behind an NHL bench. Something Gronborg also lacks, though his run as Sweden’s national team head coach obviously comes close.

Tippett feels to be the safest of these three, to me. He’s not as much of an unknown commodity as Gronborg and he’s more experienced than Keefe when it comes to his NHL coaching resume. He’s also come to be known for playing a more conservative, defensive style. Something the Sabres have been lacking. It’s probably easier have confidence that the wheels won’t fall off with Tippett while also having a general idea of how successful Buffalo would be with him behind the bench. But what he may lack in the potential for a home run is exactly what makes Keefe and Gronborg so enticing.

8. Zach Bogosian’s hip surgery could change the Sabres’ plans for Rasmus Ristolainen. We’ve mentioned on the 31 Thoughts podcast rumblings that Buffalo and Tampa Bay seriously considered a Ristolainen deal and planned on revisiting it. But another team that poked around him thinks GM Jason Botterill is asking candidates how they can work with Ristolainen and improve his game. I’m a big believer in that. Always easier to solve your issues instead of trading them — if you can.

The answer regarding Ristolainen’s poor results – whether by analytics, plus/minus, eye test or otherwise – has almost always been to throttle his usage and keep him from situations where he needs to do any sort of heavy lifting. The only problem is that the last few coaches have done exactly the opposite. Ristolainen is still young but it also seems to me that he is who is his. He may not exhibit the greatest hockey IQ in the world, but he has some elite tools. If he’s playing in a 3-5 role on a team, you’re probably doing him a better service than the Sabres have in recent years.

Certainly, there are fans out there who fear that he’ll evolve into a dynamo with a new team and it’s certainly a possibility. If he wound up in Tampa, where he wouldn’t have to sniff top pair minutes (he may not even sniff top three or four usage depending on their depth), he’d probably look a lot sharper than he has here. He may even see a turnaround in some of his advanced analytics which have been used against him for so long.

Friedman is right in wondering how Bogosian’s injury affects their plans. In a vacuum it makes sense to trade Ristolainen. He’s no longer the team’s best defenseman and his on-ice results have been declining for some time. If he’s the asset that can bring more quality to the forward group, there should be no hesitation to move him. The reality of the situation is that trading Ristolainen would leave the right side barren to start the season, with Brandon Montour being the only returning player of note. Even with Will Borgen and Casey Nelson available to fill some minutes, you’d be awfully shorthanded on the right side.

It may still come to pass that he’s moved. After all, you can make a pretty strong argument that they’d be making improvements in two areas if he was dealt. But there are more hurdles in that path than there were just a few weeks ago.

15. I think Winnipeg is going to try and find a way to keep Brandon Tanev. It won’t be easy. He’s an unrestricted free agent who has worked hard to become an important player for them. They will also try to keep Ben Chiarot, another UFA. Then it gets tricky. It sure sounds like a bridge deal is coming for Patrik Laine. They want term for Kyle Connor — and the sense is he prefers that, too, but restricted free agent negotiations are a grind, now.

They’ve dangled Mathieu Perreault to ease their cap issues and are expected to do so again. The question is going to be, do they move someone else with a bigger salary? They really like Nik Ehlers, but he’s never scored in 21 playoff games. They’ll take time and think, because they do like his skill-set. But that could be a conversation. Jack Roslovic wants more of an opportunity, whether there or elsewhere. This may have changed, but up until late in the season, there were no talks with Tyler Myers.

Because I’ve procrastinated on every post I’ve done lately, just look at this coming out a week after Friedman’s blog, I didn’t put out my post on targeting first round exits when I originally planned. Had I applied a better work ethic I would have looked like a very good and smart boy for pegging Perreault as a cap dump the Sabres could target from Winnipeg in order to drive the price down on others. Instead it probably looks like I just lifted my ideas from last week’s blog. But I can own my errors on this.

Anyway. Perreault’s contract isn’t exactly ideal for a team hoping to finally take a serious step forward. He has another year left after 2019-20, so you’d be dealing with that cap hit longer than you’d probably prefer. But unlike, say, Matt Hunwick, Perreault has been productive right through this past season. If you’re into fancy stats, his underlying numbers have been strong for quite some time and if you prefer counting stats, he’s scored 15 goals in four of his five seasons in Winnipeg. Including this past year. He’s better than just about anyone they rolled out in the bottom six last year and he should make your team better. At the very least he’d provide an opportunity to fill Jason Pominville’s production in the bottom six and in acquiring him you’d hope that the price on another member of the Jets would be driven down.

I’m partial to Nikolaj Ehlers. That stat about his playoff production is troubling but at some point that’s going to change and his regular season production is exactly what the Sabres need more of. Aside from somehow getting Kyle Connor, Ehlers is probably the guy I’d want most from the Jets. Ehlers and Perreault would check off the depth and scoring boxes on Buffalo’s summer to-do list. Freidman’s mention of Roslovic seeking a bigger role interests me as the Sabres could certainly offer that. Would the Jets be looking to recoup a first round for him, or is there a way to massage a cheaper deal for the young forward?

21. Washington would love to get Jakub Vrana done long-term and keep Brett Connolly, but you know they’re also going to see what Backstrom/Holtby are thinking. Then, there’s The Great Eight. There was a time they thought he’d finish this contract and consider playing in Russia. Now? He had another incredible season and competed as hard as anyone in the playoffs. The Gretzky all-time goals chase is on, and what a story that pursuit would be. At the trade deadline, I think the Capitals “softly” checked the market on Matt Niskanen, but, even though he didn’t have a great year, he’s a good player. One exec said Washington made it clear “it would hurt” to move him. (They did put winger Maximilian Kammerer on unconditional waivers on Tuesday.)

Connolly is a guy I’d be interested in the Sabres going after. Especially if other mid-lineup options dry up. He’s really come out of his shell in Washington and at 27 and coming off a 20-goal season, I’m guessing he’s going to want a decent pay raise. That might rule him out as a smart pickup for the Sabres, but he’s shown the ability to serve as a quality middle-six player. I’d be wary of overpaying him, but he might serve as a decent fit given their needs.

Niskanen might be someone who perks up the ears of a team in need of a right handed defenseman. Two more years over $5m and 32 years old is well outside Buffalo’s target range. But in the event Rasmus Ristolainen is actually traded and the Sabres are in need of help on the right side, Niskanen could be a fit.

25. If P.K. Subban is available, remember that he’s probably a Canuck at the 2016 draft if the Canadiens find a way to draft Pierre-Luc Dubois.

Only including this to say how disappointing it is to know that the 2016 first round could have had some real fireworks had the Blue Jackets not ruined everything. As someone who had tickets and was eagerly anticipating DEALS, it’s a bummer to hear some of the moves that may have gone down had the Jackets not valued Pierre-Luc Dubois the way they did.

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